What Makes Life Real

November 14, 2019
Scotty McLennan
The Rev. Scotty McLennan. Photo courtesy of Scotty McLennan.

In Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the title character agonizes over a dreadful thought as he nears the end of his life: “What if my entire life, my entire conscious life, was not the real thing?” Scotty McLennan asks his students to ponder the same question before they start their careers as global entrepreneurs and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

“Good literature inevitably raises questions about the existential meaning of why we’re here,” McLennan says. “What matters? What’s important? What should one do? How should one do it? What kind of legacy do you want to leave on this earth?”

As a lecturer in political economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Rev. Scotty McLennan, MDiv ’75, JD ’75, teaches ethics and religion to the future “masters of the universe,” using great literature to get them to consider what makes a life real. In his course “The Business World: Moral and Spiritual Inquiry through Literature,” students read “American Dream” literature by authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arthur Miller, and Flannery O’Connor, then shift to international authors. By reflecting on the journeys of the characters in the novels they read, McLennan’s students find an emotional meaning and core that helps them better understand their own motivations. In so doing, they connect with a spirituality that touches what McLennan calls “the beyond within.”

From Social Justice to Social Entrepreneurship

As an aspiring activist and Unitarian Universalist minister, McLennan certainly didn’t see himself teaching business school students. A self-professed “child of the ’60s,” McLennan came from a family of wealth and privilege. He went to prep school, then to an Ivy League college, before simultaneously pursuing graduate degrees at Harvard Law School and Harvard Divinity School, all with an eye to social justice work.

“After college, I didn’t respect the decision of my few friends who were going into business,” he confesses. “Virtually nobody did in those days. I certainly held the view that capitalism was wrong and one of the problems of the world.”

McLennan’s commitment to social justice brought him to Dorchester, where he practiced “legal ministry” from 1975 to 1984. His wife brought him to higher education when she suggested he apply for the chaplain’s job at Tufts University. McLennan not only got the position, but also ended up serving for 16 years.

One summer he received a call from a colleague at Harvard Business School asking him to work part-time on the School’s new ethics program. He saw teaching business school students as an opportunity to reach people “on the other end so that they can understand the real plight of low-income people and people of color.”

““As a legal services attorney, I saw how my clients were oppressed by business in America,” he says. “As a teacher, I began to see that business students were actually quite different from what I imagined they were.”

McLennan switched coasts in 2001 when he became dean for religious life at Stanford University and lecturer in the university’s Ethics in Society program. He stepped down from his post as dean in 2014 and now focuses on his classroom work. He says that business students have changed a lot since his first days at HBS.

“They’re trying to make a difference in the world,” McLennan explains. “Areas like social entrepreneurship have really grown over the years. Concerns for the environment and environmental impact, issues around discrimination, all kinds of things have really become part and parcel of business students’ thinking.”

Solidarity Precedes Particularity

In his teaching, Rev. McLennan draws upon many of the lessons he learned from his professors at Harvard Divinity School, including Ralph Potter’s boxes for ethical decision making, James Luther Adams’s emphasis on the connection between law and religion, Harvey Cox’s theology of culture, and Bill Rogers’s training in pastoral counseling and client-centered therapy. He also emphasizes the sort of deep understanding across difference that is becoming more important than ever in higher education and politics.

“I’m really hopeful about the work that’s being done to help people listen to each other across difference,” he says. “I look at Diana Eck’s Pluralism Project at Harvard or Diane Moore’s Religious Literacy Project, and those are the kinds of things I think are moving us in the right direction.”

To help his students move in the right direction, McLennan explores the religious traditions, attitudes, and beliefs which lie beneath the way business is done across the globe in his course “Global Business, Religion, and National Culture.”

“It really helps them understand how people operate, how they’re going to do business, and why they have very different views of things like contracts, and the so-called mixing of business and the personal,” he says. “You can’t really do business in the United Arab Emirates without knowing something about Islam, and you can’t do business in China without knowing anything about Confucianism, or in India without knowing anything about Hinduism.”

Even as he acquaints students with the religious and cultural differences that underlie the global business landscape, McLennan is mindful of the words of the late Wilfred Cantwell Smith, former professor of comparative religion at HDS.

“Smith, a white, straight, Presbyterian male, would always say ‘some of us’ or ‘those of us’—‘those of us who are black, those of us in the world who are women, or ‘some of us in the human race are gay, some of us are Muslim, some of us are Asian.’ His point was that, ultimately, we all are one,” McLennan remembers. “He was reminding us that our human solidarity always precedes our particularity.”

Connecting with that solidarity is what helps McLennan and his students better understand not only what makes a life “real,” but also what makes it meaningful.

“It’s love that comes through as the answer for Ivan Ilyich,” he says, “He realizes that what’s been missing in his life is deep love, given and received. He tries to express that love by making it less difficult for his wife and children as he’s dying and asking that he be forgiven for not being there in a loving way for them. With my students, I ask, ‘Why can’t we see ourselves through those endgame eyes and live loving, caring, and nurturing lives all the way along?’”